Most of all longing

‘Music is most of all longing’. So wrote the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schlegel. In doing so, he pinpointed not only his own longstanding preoccupation with the idea of music’s ineffability, but that of an entire generation of German thinkers, critics and musicians. For the idea of longing, familiar as a narrative device throughout the history of art, had come for Schlegel and his contemporaries to symbolize the very idea of humanity, conceived in terms of an unquenchable desire for some truth or state of being as yet beyond reach. And music, until recently considered the ‘handmaiden of poetry’, an art form compromised by its semantic inadequacy, was now valued as queen of the arts precisely because its significance could never be tied down. The force of music, in other words, consisted not in any ability to convey representations and truths about the world, but in instilling in the listener the sense of longing for a truth as yet unspoken. Hearing, playing and contemplating music, in short, were held to make us more human.

It is not clear what kind of music Schlegel had in mind when coining this phrase, but the chances are that had he lived to know Richard Wagner he would have discovered a kind of music which mirrored his own conception. For not only are all of Wagner’s operas and music dramas, from Der fliegende Holländer onwards, concerned ‘most of all’ with longing in some shape or form, but the harmonic and melodic style of his music seems so completely tied to the idea – of a striving and straining to attain a state of peace, of ultimate rest or perfect redemption – that Wagner might as well himself have come up with Schlegel’s idea.

Nor should we be surprised by this, for while Schlegel didn’t know Wagner, Wagner knew Schlegel. Indeed, the composer was steeped in the philosophy and theory of German Romanticism, considering his music not simply as the articulation of the indeterminate desire central to the human spirit, but as that which the human spirit – and its German quotient in particular – was itself longing to hear. Of Wagner’s early dramas, Der fliegende Holländer is perhaps the one most explicitly concerned with this theme. Indeed, the very figure of the Dutchman himself, condemned to wander the seven seas for eternity save for the unlikely chance of obtaining the selfless love of a good woman (particularly hard for the Dutchman, because he is only permitted to come ashore once every seven years), is in many ways simply a personification of this idea of endless longing, especially given that peace of mind, death and love – as so often in Wagner – are intermingled as the explicit object of this desire. As the composer himself put it, some ten years after completing the Dresden version of the opera:

The figure of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ is a mythic poetic creation of the folk: a primeval trait of human nature finds the most gripping and powerful expression in this figure. In its most general significance this trait can be identified as the longing for peace in the wake of life’s storms… What we have here is a remarkable hybrid, cultivated by the spirit of the folk, of the character of the Wandering Jew with that of Odysseus… But redemption, withheld from the Wandering Jew, is put within reach of the Dutchman in the form of– a woman who will sacrifice herself for love.

In many ways, therefore, the Dutchman is the ultimate Romantic hero, at one with the fate of mankind. In this respect he is the perfect embodiment of Weltschmerz, of the poetic mode of lovelorn, worldly disenchantment, whose sin, like that perhaps of Adam and Eve, may simply have been the blasphemy of knowing too much, too clearly. In this respect, his essential longing, instead of being intended towards diverse objects, people and ideas – as it is for the rest of us – is distilled into a single, unfiltered desire for rest.

Most of us are familiar with the literature of Weltschmerz through the poetry of the period, and in particular in the tradition of the German Lied. Here, in the settings by Schubert and Schumann, we constantly confront the tropes of world-weariness and unrequited love. Consider for a moment Schubert’s ‘happy miller’ (Die schöne Müllerin, on poems by Wilhelm Müller), or the poet-lover of Schumann and Heine’s Dichterliebe. These are figures so apparently reconciled to their gloom, so firm in their need for their love to be unrequited, that they seem to do everything possible to avoid any kind of happy ending. Indeed, conceived in this light, it is clear that the very idea of Weltschmerz is only incidentally about misery, the essential unrequitedness of the Romantic love affair being simply a metaphor for the deeper state of in determinate longing that defines us as hum a n . Nowadays best remembered for the bittersweet ironies of his epigrammatic poems – which in many ways embody the poesy of Weltschmerz by always undercutting the hope and dreams they articulate – Heine also did much to pillory his country’s uncritical obsession with the literature of romantic despair. Indeed it was one such parody that provided the most obvious source for Wagner’s treatment of the story of the Flying Dutchman. When, in his Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski (Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski), Heine’s fictional Polish nobleman relates the details of a play seen in Amsterdam, the story matches Wagner’s early plans for the treatment in almost every respect. But Heine’s narrator is also scathing, particularly of the end, when ‘Mrs Flying Dutchman’ calls out in her bid to save the departing sailor, ‘often happy enough to be redeemed from marriage’.

At these words the loyal wife plunges into the sea, and now the curse on the Flying Dutchman ends, he is redeemed, and we see the ghostly ship sink into the depths of the sea. The moral of the play is thus that women should take care not to marry Flying Dutchmen; and we men observe from this play that we ruin ourselves through women, even in the most favourable case.

Scholars have often had cause to wonder, when considering Wagner’s treatment of the story, how he came to use a version bearing such a striking resemblance to Heine’s sarcastic parody. If people were already laughing in the early 1830s (Herr von Schnabelewopski was published in 1833) at the idea of a restless wanderer in search of the perfect woman, possessed of a love so pure that she is determined to die for him, why should they take it seriously a decade later when the romantic aspects of the story were to be rendered even more overblown by a full quota of operatic bells and whistles?

In the common version of Der fliegende Holländer, revised much later in 1860,Wagner adjusted the music of the ending to remove, among other things, any sense in which Senta’s death could be understood as a tragedy. Rather, Senta and her Dutchman are liberated from life and its concomitant state of longing, passing through an Isolde-style transfiguration to the realm of the infinite. And long after Heine’s text has been forgotten, and after similar Wagnerian loves and deaths in the Ring and of course Tristan und Isolde have reshaped our entire idea of what to expect on the operatic stage, the idea certainly has an unquestionable logic to it. But in the previous version of the opera, which received its premiere in Dresden in 1843, though the stage directions are the same as in 1860, the harsher end to the piece musically might lead us to see Senta’s final act of selfless love as her final act, leaping from the cliff and taking her restless yearning with her to a watery grave.

The reading is interesting not just in being more ‘realistic’ – realism in the standard sense was never much of a concern for Wagner, nor indeed for any successful composer of opera – but because it transfers the dramatic focus away from the eponymous hero to Senta herself, whose listless dreaming, we may well come to suppose, has conjured up not only the Dutchman and his ghostly crew but also the version of herself capable of dying for selfless love.

Later on, it became clear to Wagner that he himself, and his audience, had to share in Senta’s dream. In the continuation of his later description of the Dutchman, quoted above, written in 1851 when plans for the Ring and its monumental drama of selfless love and redemption through selflessness were well underway, Wagner turns his attention to the object of the Dutchman’s longing.

The longing for death drives him to seek out such a woman. But that woman is no longer the domestic paragon, Penelope, as courted in ancient times by Odysseus; it is now the epitome of woman, woman as yet unmanifest, only longed for, dimly intuited, an infinitely feminine being – let me just say it outright: the woman of the future.

Clearly, this was quite a pair of operatic shoes to fill, and Wagner adjusted the score accordingly along the Tristan-esque lines familiar today. But as the dramatic embodiment of the idea of longing – of the critical heart of the tradition of Weltschmerz – it is perhaps the earlier version which captures the idea best. Less obviously romantic, the Dresden version is in many respects more starkly Romantic. Indeed, the longing central to this version is not the Dutchman’s at all, but rather that of Senta: not yet the woman of the future but a girl, fed up with her spinning wheel, gauche suitor and petit-bourgeois father, staring at the painting on the wall and dreaming of a love so pure, so transforming, that it is no more attainable for her than it is for us.

And yet clearly, just as in Schlegel’s idea of music, whereby man is re stored to himself through the experience of its focused but indeterminate desire, so is Senta’s life transformed – whether in death or in a solipsistic dream – by her living thro ugh the longing for the ineffable object of her heart’s desire.

Programme note for the Royal Opera production, February 2009

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